OKLAHOMA CITY — Time remained on the scoreboard clock in this Sunday night matchup between the Washington Wizards and the Oklahoma City Thunder, but Bradley Beal’s night had come to an end. Beal walked toward his teammates and into the open arms of his big man, not saying a word while burying his head in Thomas Bryant’s black jersey. For once, Beal could exhale inside this arena, which has been a den of nightmares for the Wizards.
Around Beal, the sellout crowd was shocked into silence as his teammates applauded and extended their palms for high-fives to commemorate a most rare event — a 116-98 win, Washington’s first victory over the Thunder in Oklahoma City in 10 tries.
At the buzzer, trainer Jeff Bangs, a noted Philadelphia Eagles fan, exclaimed: “What a day! What a day!” His Eagles had won an NFC playoff game in Chicago, but inside Chesapeake Energy Arena it felt as if the Wizards (16-24) had accomplished something just as significant.
No Wizards player had ever experienced this feeling. Every visit to the heartland had produced the same result — a loss. All those years when Scott Brooks was coach of the Thunder — and in the past three years after he moved several feet down to stand in front of the Wizards’ bench — defeat had always followed Washington off this court. Until Sunday.
“It’s great. I told the team that before we walked out tonight I’ve never won here,” Beal said. “Even when Brooks was here, I’ve never won here. So it’s just something I wanted everybody to keep on their mind.”
The Wizards had never muzzled the fury of Russell Westbrook quite like this. Though there have been times when he had gone full Westbrook and needed 35 shots to score 35 points (Nov. 30, 2016) or scored under 20 points against Washington (it has happened three times inside this arena), Westbrook had always done enough to help or lead the Thunder to its traditional win over Washington. Until Sunday.
“Big win for us,” Otto Porter Jr. said. “We executed our game plan well and came out with the results.”
Beal scored 25 points (10 for 27 from the field), while Porter made another step toward looking like his old self in his return from injury with 20 points. The scoring helped, but Washington’s defense secured this night, quite possibly the team’s best win of the season.
Westbrook hit only 9 of 23 shots and finished with 22 points, while Paul George also needed quantity (18 attempts for 20 points) to make an impact. Washington held the Thunder, which had won four of its previous five games, to 43.2 percent shooting and had a 55-41 rebounding advantage against one of the strongest defensive teams in the NBA. Washington has won all nine games this season in which it has outrebounded its opponent.
“They’ve got three all-stars on the floor, and I thought we battled them and did a lot of things well,” Brooks said of Westbrook, George and powerful center Steven Adams (12 points). “It’s obviously a big win. It’s great coming back here and getting a win.”
Brooks abruptly finished his thought there, never letting on just how good it had to feel to return to Oklahoma City and beat the team he had coached from 2008 to 2015. Before the game, however, Beal noticed a subtle difference in his coach. Just by looking at Brooks, he could tell this wasn’t just another game.
“He was dressed super early today before the game. I was like, ‘Damn,’ ” Beal said. “It’s not like him. He’s usually a last-minute guy and walks out with the rest of the coaches, but he was ready to go early.”
The Wizards initially did not match their coach’s eagerness.
It didn’t seem like a night for firsts in the opening minutes when Adams bullied Bryant and Oklahoma City finished its first three possessions with dunks. The way the Wizards had settled for tough offensive looks and fired off-target at the start, the game appeared to be following the same script.
“The way we started, it was not looking good,” Brooks recalled. “They were manhandling us and getting anything they wanted. We couldn’t get to the rim. We couldn’t do anything those first two to three minutes.”
Though the shots didn’t fall so easily, the Wizards did not let their lack of rhythm disrupt their aggression on defense. They stayed busy in the restricted area and rebounded on both ends. When the Thunder bench stepped onto the court, Washington’s four reserves thoroughly won the matchup. In large part because of Porter’s scoring and Ian Mahinmi’s defense, the Wizards’ bench outscored Oklahoma City’s 42-22.
“The second unit was great for us today,” starting point guard Tomas Satoransky said, “and they showed us a little bit the way how to play, and it was great.”
When Oklahoma City appeared ready to pounce, with Westbrook’s layup pulling the Thunder ahead 67-65 with 7:08 left in the third quarter, the Wizards took over with a 15-2 run and — “What a day!” — the team from Washington exorcised its demons in Oklahoma City and won a game.